by David Thompson
Eric Weinert is starting to sweatóand not because heís poised to fly hundreds of feet above the field heís standing in with a two-stroke engine and a propeller mounted to his back. Heís sweating because he canít get off the ground.
photo by Peter French
The fifty-two-year-old Hilo businessman is hooked on powered paragliding, regular paraglidingís motorized subset, a sport that originated in France in the 1980s, arrived in the United States in the 1990s and now has an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 practitioners here.
Weinertís been racking up flight time since he bought his first motorized paragliding apparatus last summer. Some days heíll fly for hours, hovering over waterfalls, buzzing startled farmers in their fields and quite literally dropping in on friends out of the clear blue sky. "The windís in your face, and youíre just sitting up there in whatís like this lawn chair, and itís just incredible!" Weinert says.
While ordinary paragliders need high places to launch from, power paragliders can take off from just about anywhere. That appeals to Weinert, who likes to take off from the front yard of the house heís building on the Hamakua Coast. Today heís trying out a brand-new engine, one more powerful and unwieldy than the one heís used to. Heís having trouble getting airborne, and the weather isnít helping: He needs at least a ten-mile-per-hour headwind to inflate and hold his paragliding canopy aloft as he takes off running with the seventy-pound motor on his back. But the wind wonít cooperate. Each time it picks up long enough for Weinert to raise the canopy off the ground, it dies before he can take off.
Weinertís getting tired and frustrated. His power paragliding pals crack jokes to ease the tension: Donít get para-peeved now, Weinert. Youíre looking para-pissed. Weinert has his para-patience tested for two hours before a wind builds out of the east. He raises his canopy, runs like crazy, hits the gas andófinally, heís up! He soars around the field in big loops, the motor on his back droning obnoxiously, like a flying leaf blower. Through binoculars, you can see an enormous grin on his face.
Offshore, a dark squall kicks up whitecaps and threatens to move in. Weinert prudently cuts his flight short, letting up on the throttle to descend and swooping in for a graceful landing. "What a rush! What a total rush!" he exclaims. "Iím addicted! I am 100 percent addicted!" He covers his motor, folds up his canopy and waits for the squall to pass. Then he sets everything back up and gets ready to go again.